Advocating for Change and Accountability in Our Child Welfare Systems
Agencies entrusted with the care and custody of LGBTQ youth during multiple crises need to be transparent and accountable.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, safety precautions to slow the spread of the virus have disrupted life as we know it, including the schedule and workings of government agencies and services. Arising in the midst of the pandemic, the wave of Black Lives Matter protests against racist violence have further highlighted the ongoing inequities in our society and the need to address systemic racism across all our institutions. Against this backdrop, work to support and empower youth – particularly Black, Brown, and LGBTQ youth – impacted by our child welfare systems has taken on increased urgency.
COVID-19 pandemic advocacy
This April, we were a founding member of the new Massachusetts Child Welfare COVID-19 Coalition that is fighting to ensure that Massachusetts is accountable to Department of Children and Families-involved youth and their families during the pandemic. From demanding a moratorium on case closures for transition-age youth, to calling for transparent crisis reporting data, this new coalition aims to ensure:
- support for transition-age youth
- ongoing contact between children, parents, and siblings separated by DCF
- continued reunification of children and parents despite the pandemic
- transparent and thorough crisis data reporting
- support, particularly technological resources, for youth in congregate care
The child welfare system disproportionately separates parents and children of color, and it is imperative that the pandemic not exacerbate the harms of this system.
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on children and families already involved with DCF needs our urgent attention, in particular children that are approaching the maximum age of DCF jurisdiction. Older teens are less likely to be placed with a permanent family before they age out of the system. Without their connection to services, they are at high risk of homelessness, and in the current public health crisis sending youth off to fend for themselves is extremely dangerous.
Not only are transition-age youth at heightened risk, but during this crisis, all children in care are facing elevated exposure to the novel coronavirus. Many foster kids are moved from placement to placement, with no option for social distancing. On the other hand, children in separate placements have been unable to have visits with their parents and siblings, even virtually. This contact with their family plays an important role in lessening the effects of the trauma they have already gone through from being separated, and undermines the process of eventually being reunited with their family — a core child welfare goal. The decision-making process during this crisis is often ad hoc and arbitrary, rather than in accordance with a consistently applied, thoughtful policy.
Through the COVID-19 Coalition, we have partnered with a broad community of advocates to take action during this unprecedented crisis to address the emergency needs of children and families involved with DCF. We call on DCF to act urgently to support and serve transition-age youth, to protect the health and well-being of children in foster care and group homes, to ensure children, siblings, and parents have meaningful contact despite the pandemic, and to provide comprehensive and transparent crisis reporting so there is accountability and action for children and parents already involved with DCF.
LGBTQ youth in the child welfare system
Even before the pandemic began, Senior Staff Attorney Polly Crozier had been working to address systemic inequalities in the Department of Children and Families in Massachusetts.
Nationally, LGBTQ youth, and particularly Black and Brown LGBTQ youth, are overrepresented in child welfare systems, but in Massachusetts, there are only beginning efforts at data collection on sexual orientation and gender identity of youth in care, and that data is not collected in an inter-sectional manner with data on race or disability, nor is it publicly reported.
What already is clear is that, in Massachusetts, there are substantial racial disparities in our child welfare system that must be addressed. For example, the DCF 2019 Annual report showed:
- Black families are twice as likely to have an open DCF case than white families
- Latinx families are 3 times as likely to have an open DCF case than white families
- Black children are in out of home placements at 2.6 times the rate of white children
- Latinx children are in out of home placements at 2.5 times the rate of white children
Once removed from their homes, children in Massachusetts suffer high rates of placement instability, housing in congregate care, and lack of permanency when they reach age 18. The trauma of separation from their families of origin is compounded by a child welfare system that does not deliver on its promise of stability and well-being and, in fact, pushes them to deeper system involvement. As a result, an overwhelming number of children in juvenile justice custody in Massachusetts are currently DCF-involved.
We are actively working on systems change in the Massachusetts child welfare system and has, with partners and collaborators such as the Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth and Citizens for Juvenile Justice, identified key priority areas of advocacy, some of which are described below. This advocacy is in addition to case interventions: We field inquiries from child protection lawyers, youth, foster parents, and other providers, and works to provide technical assistance and support to individual youth who are DCF-involved.
The higher proportion of LGBTQ youth in care is due to many factors, including family rejection. Given the high population of LGBTQ youth in Massachusetts and the overrepresentation of LGBTQ youth in care nationally, it is imperative that we systematically understand the numbers and needs of LGBTQ youth in care and custody in Massachusetts.
Due to a lack of data collection and transparent reporting, however, we do not know the numbers of LGBTQ youth in DCF care or custody. What we do know, by DCF’s own admission, is that LGBTQ youth represent a vulnerable population of youth in the child welfare system. Data collection is critical to understanding the needs of youth and ensuring their connection to culturally competent resources to meet those needs.
We are advocating for DCF data collection, including through legislation currently pending in the Massachusetts legislature. We will continue our work to ensure LGBTQ youth are counted and served.
Training for workers and providers
A critical component of ensuring the safety and well-being of LGBTQ youth is training for all staff. Training, in its current form, is a mere 45 minute introduction to LGBTQ issues which is inadequate. We continue to advocate for ongoing, substantial cultural competency training for workers including:
- understanding basic LGBTQ terminology
- basic vocabulary for transgender and gender expansive youth
- how to appropriately collect demographic data
- how to affirm LGBTQ youth, including access to gender affirming healthcare which disproportionately impacts transgender youth of color
- how to support families of origin, foster, and pre-adoptive families on affirming LGBTQ youth
- cultural competency working with LGBTQ parents
Training for foster and pre-adoptive parents
Currently, foster and pre-adoptive parents go through a training program called Massachusetts Approaches to Partnership in Parenting (MAPP). The MAPP training is outdated and perpetuates harmful stereotypes regarding LGBTQ Youth. We’re advocating for an update to this key training to ensure that providers have accurate and culturally competent information about LGBTQ youth.
We are working with all available tools of impact to improve the child welfare system — legislation, policy, intervention/litigation, and education — in a sustained way. The COVID-19 pandemic has broadened our engagement with child welfare reform in Massachusetts and, with new challenges, has brought new collaborations and opportunities to work for change. The systemic child welfare system change we strive for can, and must, address the needs of youth and families of color. Real change is only possible when the most vulnerable of us are protected, and the system is rebuilt for all of us to thrive.